After the storm: how political attacks on renewables elevates attention paid to climate change



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AAP/David Mariuz

David Holmes, Monash University

This time last year, Australia was getting over a media storm about renewables, energy policy and climate change. The media storm was caused by a physical storm: a mid-latitude cyclone that hit South Australia on September 29 and set in train a series of events that is still playing itself out.

The events include:

In one sense, the Finkel Review was a response to the government’s concerns about “energy security”. But it also managed to successfully respond to the way energy policy had become a political plaything, as exemplified by the attacks on South Australia.

New research on the media coverage that framed the energy debate that has ensued over the past year reveals some interesting turning points in how Australia’s media report on climate change.

While extreme weather events are the best time to communicate climate change – the additional energy humans are adding to the climate is on full display – the South Australian event was used to attack renewables rather than the carbonisation of the atmosphere. Federal MPs hijacked people’s need to understand the reason for the blackout “by simply swapping climate change with renewables”.

However, the research shows that, ironically, MPs who invited us to “look over here” at the recalcitrant renewables – and not at climate-change-fuelled super-storms – managed to make climate change reappear.

The study searched for all Australian newspaper articles that mentioned either a storm or a cyclone in relation to South Australia that had been published in the ten days either side of the event. This returned 591 articles. Most of the relevant articles were published after the storm, with warnings of the cyclone beforehand.

Some of the standout findings include:

  • 51% of articles were about the power outage and 38% were about renewables, but 12% of all articles connected these two.

  • 20% of articles focused on the event being politicised by politicians.

  • 9% of articles raised climate change as a force in the event and the blackouts.

  • 10% of articles blamed the blackouts on renewables.

  • Of all of the articles linking power outages to renewables 46% were published in News Corp and 14% were published in Fairfax.

  • Narratives that typically substituted any possibility of a link to climate change, included the “unstoppable power of nature” (18%), failure of planning (5.25%), and triumph of humanity (5.6%).

Only 9% of articles discussed climate change. Of these, 73% presented climate change positively, 21% were neutral, and 6% negative. But, for the most part, climate change was linked to the conversation around renewables: there was a 74% overlap. 36% of articles discussing climate change linked it to the intensification of extreme weather events.

There was also a strong correlation between the positive and negative discussion of climate change and the ownership of newspapers.

The starkest contrast was between the two largest Australian newspaper groups. Of all the sampled articles that mentioned climate change, News Corp was the only group to has a negative stance on climate change (at 50% of articles), but still with 38% positive. Fairfax was 90% positive and 10% neutral about climate change.

Positive/negative stance of articles covering climate change by percentage.

Given that more than half of all articles discussed power outages, the cyclone in a sense competed with renewables as a news item. Both have a bearing on power supply and distribution. But, ironically, it was renewables that put climate change on the news agenda – not the cyclone.

Of the articles discussing renewables, 67% were positive about renewables with only 33% “negative” and blaming them for the power outages.

In this way, the negative frame that politicians put on renewable energy may have sparked debate that was used to highlight the positives of renewable energy and what’s driving it: reduced emissions.

But perhaps the most interesting finding is the backlash by news media against MPs’ attempts to politicise renewables.

19.63% of all articles in the sample had called out (mainly federal) MPs for politicising the issue and using South Australians’ misfortune as a political opportunity. This in turn was related to the fact that, of all the articles discussing renewables, 67% were positive about renewables with only 33% supporting MPs’ attempts to blame them for the power outages.

In this way, while many MPs had put renewables on the agenda by denigrating them, most journalists were eager to cover the positive side of renewables.

Nevertheless, the way MPs sought to dominate the news agenda over the storm did take away from discussion of climate science and the causes of the cyclone. Less than 4% of articles referred to extreme weather intensifying as a trend.

This is problematic. It means that, with a few exceptions, Australia’s climate scientists are not able to engage with the public in key periods after extreme weather events.

When MPs, with co-ordinated media campaigns, enjoy monopoly holdings in the attention economy of news cycles, science communication and the stories of climate that could be told are often relegated to other media.


The ConversationWith thanks to Tahnee Burgess for research assistance on this article.

David Holmes, Director, Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Tony Abbott, once the ‘climate weathervane’, has long since rusted stuck


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Tonight former Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be in London to give a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, titled “Daring to Doubt”, in which he will reportedly argue that climate policy is “shutting down industries”. (It’s not clear if he’s bought carbon offsets for the 10 tonnes of carbon that a return flight to the UK will release into the atmosphere.)

Whatever talking points and soundbites he presents will inevitably be interpreted as yet another salvo in the Coalition’s ferocious and interminable war over energy and climate policy.


Read more: Two new books show there’s still no goodbye to messy climate politics


The venue is the same one where Abbott’s mentor John Howard U-turned on his earlier climate policy U-turn. In a 2013 speech, Howard disparagingly declared that “one religion is enough”, despite having belatedly pledged in 2006 to introduce an emissions trading scheme, only to lose to Kevin Rudd the following year.

Who are the GWPF anyway?

The Global Warming Policy Foundation was set up in 2009 by Nigel Lawson, who in the 1980s served as Chancellor of the Exchequer (the UK equivalent of treasurer) in Margaret Thatcher’s government, but is arguably more famous these days as Nigella’s dad.

The foundation was founded just days after the first so-called “Climategate” emails were leaked. But after complaints, in 2014 the UK Charity Commission rejected the notion that the organisation provides an educational resource, concluding that:

The [GWPF] website could not be regarded as a comprehensive and structured educational resource sufficient to demonstrate public benefit. In areas of controversy, education requires balance and neutrality with sufficient weight given to competing arguments.

Ahead of the Commission’s report, the Global Warming Policy Forum was born as the organisation’s campaigning arm, free from the regulations that govern charities.

Despite its loud demands for crystal-clear transparency about climate science, and its repeated claims that scientists are swayed by big fat grants, the GWPF is oddly cagey about its own funding. In a 2012 BBC Radio programme, Lawson said he relied on friends who “tend to be richer than the average person and much more intelligent than the average person”. An investigation by the website DeSmog has dug up some more information.

More recently the GWP Forum has been in the news because it appointed a pro-Brexit oil company boss to its board and because in August Lawson appeared on BBC Radio to attack Al Gore, accusing the Nobel prizewinning climate activist of peddling “the same old claptrap” and adding: “People often fail to change and he says he hasn’t changed, he’s like the man who goes around saying ‘the end of the world is nigh’ with a big placard”.


Read more: A brief history of Al Gore’s climate missions to Australia


Lawson wasn’t done. He also claimed that “according to the official figures, during this past 10 years, if anything, mean global temperature, average world temperature, has slightly declined”.

Factcheckers were quick off the mark, and the BBC was chided by, among others, Professor Brian Cox (a year on from bringing his graph to Q&A to try to educate the British-Australian politician Malcolm Roberts).

Days later Lawson admitted that his figures were not from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but from a meteorologist who works for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank founded by Charles Koch.

Abbott the weathervane

Anyway, back to Abbott. Digging around in the archives throws up some amusing surprises about him, as befits a man who has been making headline since 1977. In 1994 an environmental campaign to recreate Tasmania’s Lake Pedder found an unusual ally in the newly minted Member for Warringah, who wrote an article in The Australian that plaintively asked:

If we can renovate old houses and old cars, rejuvenate works of art, recreate forgotten languages and restore degraded bushland, why can’t we rehabilitate the site of a redundant dam?

Abbott seems not to have been particularly exercised by climate policy during the first decade of his parliamentary career. But once the issue hit the top of the political agenda, Abbott was – in his own words to Malcolm Turnbull – “a bit of a weathervane”.

He helped convince Howard to agree to some sort of ETS proposal during the ultimately futile bid to fend off Kevin Rudd in 2007. In July 2009, in a front-page story in The Australian headed “Abbott – we have to vote for ETS”, he was quoted as saying:

The [Rudd] government’s emissions trading scheme is the perfect political response to the public’s fears. It’s a plausible means to limit carbon emissions that doesn’t impose any obvious costs on voters.

However, by September 2009, with Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership on the rocks (remember Godwin Grech?), Abbott made a fateful trip to Beaufort in rural Victoria, and discovered that the room loved him saying “climate change is absolute crap”. The weathervane had made an abrupt about-face.

As Paul Kelly notes in his 2014 opus Triumph and Demise, then-Senator Nick Minchin was crucial in convincing Abbott that there was no serious electoral price to be paid in opposing Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

Turnbull was on the ropes, and Abbott won the leadership ballot by one vote. As David Marr recounts, the party was almost as stunned as the nation. “God Almighty,” one of the Liberals cried in the party room that day. “What have we done?”

The ensuing years need no extended recap, though two points are worth mentioning. The first is the admission by Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin that the “carbon tax” that was going to be the end of the world… wasn’t a carbon tax.

The second is that former environment minister Greg Hunt recently rebutted the claim that backbenchers prevented further cuts to the Renewable Energy Target under Abbott’s prime ministership.

Backed into a corner

The upshot is that Abbott has, as Philip Coorey recently observed, totally painted himself into a corner on energy and renewables.

Mind you, it may not matter that much to him, given that his apparent aim is not to “do a Rudd” and return to the helm, but simply to drive a wrecking ball through Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership – with climate and energy policy as collateral damage.


Read more: Coal and the Coalition: the policy knot that still won’t untie


As Abbott accepts another pat on the back from a roomful of climate deniers in London, we may wonder how long business interests in Australia will tolerate his wrecking, undermining and sniping. There is bewilderment and dismay at the destabilising effect on policy.

Among the business lobby, BHP has evidently forced the departure of Brendan Pearson as head of the Minerals Council in protest at the council’s similarly backward stance. That much is within their gift. But with regard to the Coalition government, those businesses can do little but despair at the handful of recalcitrant MPs who have nominated climate policy as the ditch in which they will die, in service of the culture war.

The ConversationThe hot air just doesn’t seem to be letting up, any more than our hot summers will in the future.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

El Niño in the Pacific has an impact on dolphins over in Western Australia



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Leaping bottlenose dolphins.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

Kate Sprogis, Murdoch University; Fredrik Christiansen, Murdoch University; Lars Bejder, Murdoch University, and Moritz Wandres, University of Western Australia

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) are a regular sight in the waters around Australia, including the Bunbury area in Western Australia where they attract tourists.

The dolphin population here, about 180km south of Perth, has been studied quite intensively since 2007 by the Murdoch University Cetacean Unit. We know the dolphins here have seasonal patterns of abundance, with highs in summer/autumn (the breeding season) and lows in winter/spring.

But in winter 2009, the dolphin population fell by more than half.

A leaping bottlenose dolphin.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

This decrease in numbers in WA could be linked to an El Niño event that originated far away in the Pacific Ocean, we suggest in a paper published today in Global Change Biology. The findings could have implications for future sudden drops in dolphin numbers here and elsewhere.


Read more: Tackling the kraken: unique dolphin strategy delivers dangerous octopus for dinner


A Pacific event

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) results from an interaction between the atmosphere and the tropical Pacific Ocean. ENSO periodically fluctuates between three phases: La Niña, Neutral and El Niño.

During our study from 2007 to 2013, there were three La Niña events. There was one El Niño event in 2009, with the initial phase in winter being the strongest across Australia.

The blue vertical line shows the decline in dolphin numbers (d) during the 2009 El Niño event.
Kate Sprogis, Author provided

Coupled with El Niño, there was a weakening of the Leeuwin Current, the dominant ocean current off WA. There was also a decrease in sea surface temperature and above average rainfall.

ENSO is known to affect the strength of the south-ward flowing Leeuwin Current.

During La Niña, easterly trade winds pile warm water on the western side of the Pacific Ocean. This westerly flow of warm water across the top of Australia through the Indonesian Throughflow results in a stronger Leeuwin Current.

During El Niño, trade winds weaken or reverse and the pool of warm water in the Pacific Ocean gathers on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean. This results in a weaker Indonesian Throughflow across the top of Australia and a weakening in strength of the Leeuwin Current.

A chart showing sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies off Western Australia. Note the extremes for the moderate El Niño in 2009 (blue rectangle), and the strong La Niña in 2011 (red rectangle)
Moritz Wandres, Author provided

The strength and variability of the Leeuwin Current coupled with ENSO affects species biology and ecology in WA waters. This includes the distribution of fish species, the transport of rock lobster larvae, the seasonal migration of whale sharks and even seabird breeding success.

The question we asked then was whether ENSO could affect dolphin abundance?

What happened during the El Niño?

These El Niño associated conditions may have affected the distribution of dolphin prey, resulting in the movement of dolphins out of the study area in search of adequate prey elsewhere.

A surfacing bottlenose dolphin.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

This is similar to what happens for seabirds in WA. During an El Niño event with a weakened Leeuwin Current, the distribution of prey changes around seabird’s breeding colonies resulting in a lower abundance of important prey species, such as salmon.

This in turn negatively impacts seabirds, including a decrease in reproductive output and changes in foraging.

In southwestern Australia, the amount of rainfall is strongly connected to sea surface temperature. When the water temperature in the Indian Ocean decreases, the region receives higher rainfall during winter.

High levels of rainfall contribute to terrestrial runoff and alters freshwater inputs into rivers and estuaries. The changes in salinity influences the distribution and abundance of dolphin prey.

This is particularly the case for the river, estuary, inlet and bay around Bunbury. Rapid changes in salinity during the onset of El Niño may have affected the abundance and distribution of fish species.

In 2009, there was also a peak in strandings of dead bottlenose dolphins in WA (between 1981-2010), but the cause of this remains unknown.

Of these strandings, in southwest Australia, there was a peak in June that coincided with the onset of the 2009 El Niño.

Specifically, in the Swan River, Perth, there were several dolphin deaths, with some resident dolphins that developed fatal skin lesions that were enhanced by the low-salinity waters.

What does all this mean?

Our study is the first to describe the effects of climate variability on a coastal, resident dolphin population.

A group of bottlenose dolphins.
Kate Sprogis/MUCRU, Author provided

We suggest that the decline in dolphin abundance during the El Niño event was temporary. The dolphins may have moved out of the study area due to changes in prey availability and/or potentially unfavourable water quality conditions in certain areas (such as the river and estuary).


Read more: Explainer: El Niño and La Niña


Long-term, time-series datasets are required to detect these biological responses to anomalous climate conditions. But few long-term datasets with data collected year-round for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are available because of logistical difficulties and financial costs.

Continued long-term monitoring of dolphin populations is important as climate models provide evidence for the doubling in frequency of extreme El Niño events (from one event every 20 years to one event every ten years) due to global warming.

The ConversationWith a projected global increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (such as floods, cyclones), coastal dolphins may not only have to contend with increasing coastal human-related activities (vessel disturbance, entanglement in fishing gear, and coastal development), but also have to adapt to large-scale climatic changes.

Kate Sprogis, Research associate, Murdoch University; Fredrik Christiansen, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Murdoch University; Lars Bejder, Professor, Cetacean Research Unit, Murdoch University, Murdoch University, and Moritz Wandres, Oceanographer PhD Student, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.